Just How Involved Was David Fincher in Netflix’s ‘Mindhunter’?
It’s been three years since David Fincher released a feature film, 2014’s brilliant Gone Girl, but the filmmaker has not simply been sitting idle. He intended to move straight into directing an entire season of an HBO drama series called Utopia written by Gillian Flynn and was also directing/executive producing an HBO half-hour series about the 1980s music video world called Videosyncrazy. However, with a handful of episodes of Videosyncrazy in the can—and with Vinyl crashing and burning and Westworld running into production issues—HBO pulled the plug on both of Fincher’s shows.
Fincher then shifted his attention to a long-developing serial killer project called Mindhunter at Netflix, and the first season of the show was finally released this past Friday to acclaim and strong buzz. Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany lead the true-story drama series about a pair of FBI agents in the 1970s who spearhead the early days of the criminal profiling unit. By interviewing incarcerated serial killers, they hope to glean insight into how their minds work, thus helping them catch others like them. But just how involved was Fincher with Mindhunter?
The origins of Mindhunter date back to Charlize Theron giving Fincher the true crime book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. When Fincher finally felt the time was right to turn this into a TV series, Theron suggested English Australian playwright/screenwriter Joe Penhall, whose credits include The Road. Penhall is the credited creator of Mindhunter, but the project eventually shifted from HBO to Netflix, and at that point Penhall told Writerly this past April that Fincher opted to run the writers room himself:
“[The situation] was complicated. HBO offered me a creator/exec producer deal which means they would pay for me to go and live in America and run a writers’ room. They said [Penhall puts on Hollywood accent] do you want the whole pie, do you want a slice of the pie, do you want an iddy bit, what do you want?
And I said I want the whole pie, expecting to go to America and do it and then Fincher [left] HBO and took it to Netflix where he was comfortable and between them they cooked up this idea that I wouldn’t go out to America and run the writers’ room, he wanted to run it, which I was happy with because by then it was 3 years later and I didn’t want to go, my kids were in school so we agreed on this virtual writers’ room, spoke to them on the internet [and] occasionally flew into town.”
Penhall says he couldn’t write the full season himself, so he enlisted two writers to help out and be the onset writers while he remained in London:
“It ended up much better for me to get LA writers. The women that I wanted were all from LA and lived 2 miles from the office it turned out. They were very classy writers, they’d written Mad Men, had Emmy awards. They couldn’t really be part of a writers’ room and be bossed around and paid a pittance and made to rewrite these 25 times. I commissioned them, I paid them, I got them to do 2 rewrites and then after that I had to do it.
In the end it proved very difficult to make work. It’s shot now and we’re waiting to come out. I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of season 2, 3, 4 and 5 because that model is probably unworkable. Me writing 7 episodes and 3 Emmy award-winning writers writing the other three, it’s high maintenance.”
Those other three writers are playwright Jennifer Haley and screenwriters Erin Levy (Mad Men) and Carly Wray (The Leftovers, Westworld). And although Penhall wrote a five-season bible for the show to begin with, McCallany told EW that Fincher essentially reworked a lot of the initial idea for the series:
“[The five-season bible is] completely irrelevant now. I think once David took control over the arc of the story, everything has changed considerably from the original scripts that were turned by a talented British writer named Joe Penhall but who is no longer with the project. From the point of Joe’s departure David sort of really began to rework the scripts and the bible and everything changed a lot.”
Indeed, perhaps the most obvious sign that Fincher was deeply involved in Mindhunter is the fact the he himself directed four of the first season’s 10 episodes—the first two and the last two. With House of Cards, Fincher directed only the first two episodes of the series, and showrunner Beau Willimon ran that show’s writers room. Conversely, you can really feel Fincher’s signature sense of humor throughout the entire first season of Mindhunter—the 10-episode first season is so in tune with Fincher’s sensibilities that it plays almost like a TV series version of Zodiac.
The show has already been renewed for a second season, so it’ll be interesting to see how that progresses. If what McCallany says is true and Penhall is no longer involved with the series, they may be looking for a new showrunner. Fincher is supposed to next direct World War Z 2 at some point next year, which would likely mean he couldn’t be involved in Mindhunter Season 2 to the same extent.
Whatever the case, Mindhunter stands as one of Netflix’s best original series yet, and it’s a joy to have such a meaty piece of work from one of the best filmmakers working today.